Various lines of evidence converge on three central facts concerning the relationship of emotional life to the immune defenses fighting cancer. These facts were not scientifically demonstrated until about 20 years ago and are generally unknown to the medical profession, and where known, ignored because of a hidden assumption.
- First, every “normal” human body produces many cancer cells daily, and the immune defenses detect and destroy approximately the same number, as demonstrated by Burnet in Immunological Surveillance (1970). Thus there is normally no persistent and progressive accumulation of cancer cells, which we label “cancer” when it is detectable.
- Second, as implied above, the immune defenses are extremely powerful. It is only under very special circumstances that these defenses break down. Such conditions include prolonged exposure to carcinogens, such as asbestos or powerful radiation, and very advanced age. but the great majority of such instances of weakening of immune defenses is due to personal tragedy (or other prolonged severe stress) with resultant feeling as if life is not worth living (depression).
- Third, the more hopeful, alert, active, and flexible the state of mind is, on the other hand, the more the immune defenses are supported and strengthened, in contrast to the process described just above. This is so for higher animals as well as for humans.
A very important example of this strengthening is “spontaneous” regression of cancer. In actuality, this phenomenon is not rare.
The Psychosomatic Cancer Study Group (New York, NY) has had 22 members, and a careful look back at our personal and professional experiences reveals 18 different such regressions, 15 of which were long-enduring and presumably permanent. (By definition, “spontaneous” regressions are those which could not possibly have been brought about by recognized medical treatment often not available at all.) More important, we discovered that shrinkage of the cancer in all these 18 cases became noticeable within one day to eight weeks after major favorable change in the person’s life. In all cases elsewhere reported (wherein there is reasonable knowledge of the person’s life around that time) the same sequence is always found.
These major favorable changes range from religious conversion (with personality transformation) to reconciliation with a long-hated mother, and include other experiences such as being faced with death for the first time and feeling differently about life, and a woman’s first love and marriage (not knowing she had cancer) at age 40. Also, when used with people much more severely depressed, electroshock therapy and insulin coma have led to prompt and usually prolonged shrinkage eight of the recorded eight times wherein the depression was markedly relieved. (Although the American Cancer Society has no system for reporting and keeping statistics on “spontaneous” regressions, they have nevertheless received over 1500 reports of this phenomenon quite spontaneously from physicians in the last 20 years. Since all 18 of our patients are known not to have been reported, it is natural to assume that the true frequency of this phenomenon is many times greater than the medical profession realizes.
Great advances have been made in both scientific understanding of the psychological elements usually present in cancer and methods of counseling and psychotherapy to struggle against the emotional difficulties, such as depression, which are generally so central in having lowered a person’s immune defenses. The medical profession is almost totally unaware of the above, largely because great advances in medical treatment of cancer came earlier. And the medical profession thus became oriented to the cancer problem as if it were one of body alone as if the mind were disconnected from the brain (or, perhaps, as if the brain did not control the immune defenses).
A worldwide survey of psychotherapists (including many medically trained psychiatrists) reveals a success rate (in collaboration with patients who generally consult them spontaneously and work extensively on relevant problems) of 25% most of which are permanent. Understanding and techniques are rapidly improving, and some therapists are now successful more often than not. Success as referred to above is defined as major favorable change in experience of living accompanied by shrinkage and generally permanent disappearance of “incurable” cancer.
All this is detailed in a form comprehensible to the layman, with many excellent examples of individual life histories before, during, and after recovery from “incurable” cancer in two excellent books (which also have excellent bibliographies). They are Getting Well Again by O. Simonton et al., J. P. Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1978; and You Can Fight For Your Life by Lawrence LeShan, Ph.D. , M. Evans & Co., New York, paperback, 1980.
Charles Weinstock, M.D. was Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Psychiatric Consultant to the Brooklyn Psychosocial Rehabilitation Institute.